Sunday, August 5, 2012

Frank Lloyd Wright's Buffalo Masterpiece

My family from Arizona was coming back east for a visit so I drove to Western New York, where I grew up, for a family reunion of sorts.  Having grown up in the country about an hour from Buffalo, a trip to the "big city" was often reserved for a special occasion like Christmas shopping.  We weren't even aware there was a Frank Lloyd Wright house in Buffalo until about 2007 and this seemed like a special occasion to visit the Darwin Martin house.

When you turn off Buffalo's Main Street onto Jewett Parkway, you immediately notice something is different.  The street's gentle curve showcases the mature trees that line the streets.  Most the houses are set back from the street leaving a true front yard which seems so unusual in such a densely built urban area. 

It turns out that this Parkside area of Buffalo was designed in 1876 by Frederick Law Olmstead, landscape architect behind Central Park and Boston's Emerald Necklace just to name a few.  It's a little surreal when the Victorian neighborhood yields to Frank Lloyd Wright's sprawling Darwin Martin House, actually a complex of several Wright-designed structures commissioned by Martin. 

The house on the right was first built in 1903 for Darwin Martin's sister.  It's now known as the Barton House.  The Darwin Martin house is in the right and it's connected to a conservatory and carriage house by a long pergola.

Original stained glass window on the Barton House.

Side of Barton House (right) and terrace of Darwin Martin house (left).

It's hard to believe these were built in 1903, the beginning of the Edwardian era.  Think 10 years before Downton Abbey was filmed!  

Photo of workers during construction.

The Darwin Martin house is considered an excellent example of Wright's prairie style characterized by strong horizontal lines created by long low spaces, shallow hipped roofs, low chimneys, terraces and cantilevered overhangs.  The steel beam construction also allowed for an open concept interior for the first time.

The horizontal lines are supported with long narrow yellow Roman bricks with recessed mortar in the horizontal joints.

To minimize vertical lines, Wright used drains to catch water from the gutters without using a downspout.

View from Martin house across the street.

Front entrance of the Martin house.

From the rear of the Martin house, the pergola extends back to the conservatory (under the pagoda) and the carriage house on the left.

Exterior of conservatory.

While it seems amazing that all these structures remain intact, it's not really the case.  Darwin Martin retired a millionaire but lost his entire fortune during the depression.  After his death in 1935, his wife was unable to maintain the house and she abandoned it in 1937.  The house remained vacant until 1954.  

Darwin Martin House circa 1965.  Photo:  Wikipedia.

In 1962, the pergola, conservatory and carriage house were demolished to make room for four apartment buildings.  

I did an extensive search on the internet to find photos of the complex during that time but could only find one photo of the apartment buildings being demolished.

The pergola and carriage house were rebuilt in 2007 and the entire complex in undergoing a $50 million renovation.  Photos are not allowed inside the house but I've assembled several old photos I found online of the home's interiors.

The receiving room.  All of the furniture was designed by Wright and about 80 percent of the original furniture was saved by Martin's son and has placed back at the house.

The receiving room today.

The living room.

The living room fireplace.

The Martin and Barton children in the garden, 1907.

The dining room.

All the interior spaces are all quite open.  Each of the spaces are defined by sets of brick piers into which bookcases are built.

The kitchen has a very different feel than the rest of the house.  It was done at a time that people were learning about germs so the kitchen is white and pristine so dirt could be seen.   It is presently undergoing restoration but the original sink is still in place.

View from the foyer down the pergola into the conservatory.

A replica of the Winged Victory of Samothrace sits at the far end of the conservatory.

Photo:  Prairie School Traveler

The conservatory today.

The Barton house was privately owned until 1994 when it was purchased by a benefactor and donated to the complex.  I understand the price was about $500,000.

The Wright-designed gardener's cottage was also privately owned until 2006 when it was purchased and became part of the complex.

All the buildings in the complex are now open to the public for tours.  If you're ever in the Buffalo area, you should make it a point to visit.  More information can be found here.


  1. Hi, Steve -
    It really is difficult to believe these were built at the beginning of the Edwardian Period. Brilliant then and now! I love the long, linear Roman bricks....did not know the name until now. Even the drains are fabulous. If I am near Buffalo, I'll definitely visit the Darwin Martin House. Quite a different setting from Fallingwater. Thanks for the tour.

  2. Amazing! I love this style of architecture, and the shape and size of the brick is so unique. Thank you for sharing this gem of a home with us.

  3. Amazing!1903 is it a joke?? Incredible!!

  4. I never realized the time lines for the build of this house and I am astounded that it was so early. He really was a genius. I love looking at his sight lines and the perfection of the siting.

  5. I love seeing architecture like this and knew it was old when I saw how thin the bricks looked. For our own home we've been trying to think of what to do in place of gutters since we don't want the vertical lines in the front. Those drains are a great idea. Loved seeing this home and interior.


  6. A fascinating tour, and I agree with Loi - it is shocking to think of the times in which this home was constructed! I don't think I had quite enough perspective on the time Wright lived and designed until now! Thank you! How incredibly modern his homes were at that time (and still now). Sadly, I do find them hideous. And all that austere furniture. But genius. I think the drains are brilliant, if you don't mind all the underground plumbing. I would love to visit some day and of course Fallingwater is on my to do list...

    Wonderful tour. Terri

  7. EXCELLENT . . . I loved this!

    He truly was brillant wasn't he. Loved seeing the new and the earlier. . . (Enamored by his solution to ugly downspouts!)

    Years ago, my husband and I managed a large two story Frank Lloyd Wright apartment 8-plex. It was owned by one of his professors. These were college years in Milwaukee. Maybe I mentioned before?   

    I was born/raised ten miles from Taliesin in Wisconsin.  I have visted there a few times. Beautiful indeed.

  8. I love the low ceilings. How did we get to those hideous high celings with Palladium windows.. Weston is filled with them. That urn was a FLW giveaway for your "where's this" game... sadly, I only think of Buffalo when it's football season!

  9. Can you imagine what it took in 1903 to commission such a house? so totally different from everything of that day? While I don't really care for the Prairie style, it has certainly held it's place and looks modern even today.

    If you have not read "Loving Frank", you should do it. A very interesting look at his life in the early 1900's.

  10. Thanks for bringing this to the attention of your readers, Steve. Buffalo has lots of great architecture.

    Have been to some great parties at the gardener's cottage; didn't realize it was sold and now part of the complex. That is such a great house!

    Where in WNY did you grow up? I grew up in Elma, not far from the Roycroft, land of Elbert Hubbard.

  11. t,
    I grew up in Medina, lived in Lewiston for four years and worked at Artpark. My family is now in Medina and Newfane. You're right about the architecture in Buffalo. There are lots of wonderful old houses.

    I hope to visit the Martin summer house on Lake Erie the next time I'm back there.

  12. Wonderful post! It amazes me how well good design can stand the test of time. Never going out of style. Love Wright's vision and have always been lucky to live in cities with homes designed by him.

  13. Very interesting and educational.
    While I love many of the homes that he has designed, this one is not a favorite, it seems "heavy". The ceilings, the furniture... I couldn't breathe in there. I guess I like more glass and light. I'm glad to see it preserved though. It always upsets me to see Art destroyed.
    Even when it's not my cup of tea.
    (I love that drain idea!)
    Thanks as always for the learning experience!

  14. Those houses are amazing! I love the site lines but those dining room chairs give me the creeps. Your hint about the Louvre was sneaky!

  15. What an amazing post about an amazing man!

  16. Well, now we know where you were visiting in your last post. Wright truly was a man ahead of his time, wasn't he? Thanks for the fascinating tour!

  17. Western NY Boy...Well I shoulda' known! (spent a lot of time in upstate NY...HS....College...working.

    Love this place. Man before his time! And even love the pristine white kitchen. Apparently you can see the germs crawl if it is white enough. snort.

  18. Thanks for the tour and the education on this one. As much of a piece of art as it is, it is all to austere for me. Especially inside. I cannot picture a relaxing gathering in or around that house. I agree with Bow Street Flowers -- I am a fan of lower ceilings (though not as oppressive as the living room one in this house. Normal heights feel cozy, while too tall feels cavernous. Just sayin.

  19. Thanks for the excellent tour and digging up all the research and photos. I can't believe some of the buildings were demolished! Beautiful fireplaces and windows! I will surely visit if I ever get to up there.

  20. I've been following you for a while now and I really enjoy reading all the posts focusing on the area where you used to live becuase they are all local to me in Rochester! Not to mention what a great inspiration your place is out in Boston.

  21. Hello,
    I've been waiting for this post!!! I live in Buffalo, just on the other side of the park from the Darwin Martin House. My father in law is a docent here, and has lots of great insider info. Anyways, we have 3 homes in this neighborhood built by F L Wright. One is a private home at Soldiers Circle, the other is a privately owned bed and breakfast on Tilinghast, and this house. All three of these homes are on roads that are near Delaware park, designed by Frederick law Olmsted, it is a very historic neighborhood, one very worth a visit!
    Thanks for the fun post!

  22. Kristin,
    That's very cool. I didn't know about the others. I was hoping to make it down to Graycliff but I just didn't have time.

    Aside from the FLW homes, there are some really beautiful Victorian and Queen Anne architecture that would make it really fun to explore.

  23. Thanks for the fine posting, Steve. It's a pleasure to look at all the details, right down to the plants cascading from the planters, which Wright would have drawn in his plans.

    As I look at all the photos, I wonder what those turn-of-the-century workers thought about the project. I'm sure they were excited, but I imagine they also required very close supervision from the master.

    I'd be delighted to live in the gardner's cottage!

  24. Now that I live in what I would call a typical house built in 1900, It is hard to imagine that this house was designed and built in 1903. The drains instead of gutters to avoid using vertical interesting. I think we were quite close to this area on our recent trip...I wish I had known....but I almost feel as I've been on the tour...thanks Steve!

  25. Amazing and way before it's time. I love all the photos you dug up!

  26. Steve, thanks for all the cool info- love learning the history behind houses that pose as art :)

    FLW and I could have been besties-putting those drains in so as not to have gutters inturrpting the sight/site lines? Love that. A sign of us OCD form and function folk for sure :)

    While I grew up in NY, I didn't venture much into upstate as an adult. I had no idea it held such important architecture until I was long moved away...

  27. Beautiful and brilliant. A little heavy to my taste and compared to some of his other work. I've always loved his commitment to a singular vision, right down to the very last detail.

    Fantastic post! Thanks for sharing!


  28. What town did you grow up in? I was born and raised in lovely Batavia, NY. And it's downright criminal that I majored in art history and American studies (not in WNY) and have never been to the Darwin Martin House. I will get there someday! I have, however, been to Taliesen West out in AZ - if you ever go to see your relatives out there, it is absolutely worth a visit.

  29. Kelly,
    I grew up in Medina. My grandmother worked in Batavia so I've been there many times. Do you remember the pheasant farm that was on the corner of 63 and 77?

  30. Falling Waters is one of my favorite drives. franki

  31. This complex of houses is truly elegant. I love the conservatory, the planters and especially the drains. How fortunate it has been preserved.

  32. I love that you included the picture of the kids. It demonstrates how truly avant garde the Martins were--except in fashion!!

  33. What a great tour and insight into the history of this home. Wonderful research, Steve. Love the old images and oh, that demo pic! It hurts to imagine that happening!

  34. Steve, an amazing feature on the timeless architecture of FLW. Even though his spaces are so horizontally designed, they have a light and airy feel because of the windows and spaciousness.

    It is also interesting how much of his furniture is designed with vertical lines which is a great juxtaposition.

    Art by Karena
    2012 Artist Series

  35. Steve,

    Parkside has an amazing tour of homes in late May each year. The Martin House is also open at that time. I would recommend it! Last October there was a preservation conference in Buffalo that got rave reviews. It's a great place to visit for architecture - there are also structures by Loius Sullivan, H.H. Richardson, and Eliel and Eero Saarinen.


  36. Michelle,

    Thanks for letting me know! I'll have to look them up. Sounds great. Saarinen lived in Cambridge but I don't know a lot about the work aside from the furniture.


  37. I don't remember the pheasant farm, but my grandparents lived in Medina for several years. And my uncle is a dairy farmer in North Java. I guess you would probably understand my excitement for the arrival of Wegmans in Chestnut Hill next year!

  38. Kelly,
    I didn't know that a Wegman's was going in. I assume that's right across from the Chestnut Hill mall where all that construction is going on? That's great. I think it will do well here.

  39. What a nice tour, Steve, Thanks!

  40. thanks for the introduction steve, was unaware of this magnificent complex.
    being near oak park, il., we have at our access many of wrights homes and will never tire of his distinct aesthetic and timeless appeal

  41. Wow, wow, wow! I'm a huge fan of the FLW style home! I like that i's not pretentious! Thank you for a beautiful tour!

    How was the family reunion?

  42. A great presentation. I especially appreciated the vintage photos, too. Was there any explanation for that scaffold-like form around the statue at the end of the pergola?

  43. Devoted,
    That's a good question! If you look at some of the old photos, you'll see similar moldings on the ceiling. Those moldings typically surrounded a plaster ceiling and were positioned in between "rooms" to delineate the spaces and create the "compression and release" that Wright liked to use to move people through a space. In the conservatory those moldings are left hanging in mid air. I don't think it works--it just seems to be in the way--but what do I know.

    1. Actually, Steve, you know quite a lot based on this excellent overview of the Darwin Martin House.
      I was there last week, and had a similar reaction to the lengths of timber left hanging, as you put it, in mid air.
      It's particularly vexing to see the plaster cast rudely bisected at mid torso. Almost perverse in fact, when the whole
      point of the pergola is that focal point at its north end.

  44. Ok, this is why I love visiting your blog, Steve - I always learn something new! Thank you for the very educational tour! I am with Loi - brilliant then and now!

    Good to be back here.



    P.S Love the conservatory.

  45. Oh, I just love it. Beautiful!!! I would love to visit someday. Thanks for sharing your lovely photos with us!

  46. Its great to see the old pictures of interior of the house. Hope you had a nice tour.

  47. He was a genius.

    I would be happy to be the gardener.

    Unless Janet already got the place.

    Beautiful, thanks for the fabulous tour.

    xo Jane

  48. I don't care what anyone says, that man was a genius. I love the down-spout-less water drainage! It would be even better if there were some sort of collection system underground! (But I don't think too many people thought about that back then...)

  49. What an excellent post this is, Steve; the balance of present and period images, telling details and a glimpse of family life. All put together it makes a fascinating story. Thank you.

  50. love the white geraniums, are they?with the prairie grasses and the FLW greek braid urn. i am trying to do a white garden out here in the desert, where grasses really work, and it's giving me ideas. thanks!!!!

  51. Thanks for the post. That house is on my list now. We live in Toronto so Buffalo is certainly a place we could get to.

    Can you believe how they destroyed part of it in the past.

  52. Fascinating that these were built so long ago...I would have guess 20's or 30's never 03! He was a visionary.

  53. Thanks for sharing! I live by his Oak Park homes but I've never visited. It's on my list of to-do. I have visited Talisen (sp?) West in Scottsdale. beautiful. he was such a visionary.

  54. Hi Steve,
    Did you see this post about Buffalo on Design Sponge?

  55. t.

    Thanks so much for letting me know. It's pretty comprehensive and includes a lot of things I've never heard of. I just sent it to my mom and sister because I would bet they don't know a lot of these places.

    Thanks for sharing!